Success is relative, but perfection is precise! What for one organization or person would be an extraordinary performance, for another is disappointing. It is all relative to ‘the yardstick’ with which something is to be compared—the standard.
Some time ago, I participated in a panel discussion during a board retreat for a very well respected regional arts festival. They are faced with the daunting challenge of responding to consistent success—success in presenting a widely popular range of offerings with artistic integrity, while balancing the budget each year. This is quite an accomplishment.
There were two other presenters on the panel, both of whom I felt offered some profound insights. Rick Lester was the managing partner of The Resource Group for the arts, a marketing company specializing in the arts, Erica Zielinski was the general manager of the very successful Lincoln Center (Arts) Festival in New York City. I was the development specialist, having had a variety of fund-raising experiences including the two years I spent as Chief Development Officer at Spoleto Festival USA. The three of us brought a range of experience that made the conversation very stimulating.
The challenge this festival faces during this time of unprecedented success, is whether and how to move to the next level. How do they transform themselves from one of the best multi-disciplinary ‘regional’ arts festivals in the country into one of the best multi-disciplinary arts festivals in the world? The panel, and the board members in attendance, all grappled with the question of what it takes to become a ‘world-class’ multidisciplinary arts festival.
Rick Lester came up with what I felt was a great definition: “‘World-class’ organizations do the hard things, exceedingly well and so consistently that they make them look easy.”
Erica Zielinski noted that “‘world-class’ arts festivals offer not just programming that is excellent and full of artistic integrity, but they offer programs that cannot be seen just anywhere else. You must present things that will inspire people to travel great distances to witness. This may mean a festival has to become a producer of original works, rather than simply a presenter of other people’s productions.”
Both of these are revealing interpretations of what a ‘world-class’ arts organization must do to receive and maintain that stature. This leads to the development perspective. What is the primary responsibility of the board of a ‘world-class’ arts festival: to raise the money that makes it all possible. No matter the mission or the mandate of a charitable organization, the one job description that remains consistent is that of the board member: to ensure that proper funding is secured to achieve the mission of the organization. It is, therefore, incumbent upon the members of the board of trustees to help secure the needed funding.
To develop a reputation as a ‘world-class’ multidisciplinary arts festival, the festival must develop a reputation for presenting the highest quality original, imaginative, exotic and eclectic works which are not commonly presented elsewhere. It costs more money to stage and/or produce such original works of art. Without widespread popular audiences across which to spread the overhead costs associated with production, design and promotion, these shows are very expensive and are not usually known for making money.
The board of a ‘world-class’ arts festival must make a conscious decision to invest in these financially risky productions, despite the financial cost. Hopefully, from this investment in artistic integrity, comes the payoff in critical acclaim and acknowledgement.
As anyone who raises money knows, you have be able to present your plans in the most favorable way so that major donors, sponsors, supporters and ticket buyers understand the need to make the needed resources available. During our panel discussion for the arts festival, one of the board members quite naturally asked what he should say when someone asks, “why are you trying to do this (move to the next level of world-class), and why do you want to spend all this money?” My response, from the development perspective, was that the festival is doing this “because we can!” In other words, we have a tremendous opportunity to go where not everyone can.
Why would a student study to go to the best college, medical school, law school? Why does a college player practice incredibly hard to become a professional athlete? Why did President Kennedy vow that the United States would go to the Moon? Because we can!
Why would your hospital develop a new heart center, cancer treatment center, or Alzheimer’s treatment program? Because they can! Why would your continuing care retirement community invest in offering the very best in health care for people across a wide range of ages? Because they can! Why would your school want to invest in raising the level of education given to its student body? Because they can! And, why would any reasonable board decide to fund the ideals and objectives of its management team? You got it, because they can, and they should!
People will invest their energy and their money in a winner. They will pay the margin if they can see and appreciate the difference. If you articulate the message properly, you can help your organization find the funding they need to make it to the desired level. Why? Because you can! And you should! Good luck, and remember to have some fun while you are at it.
David G. Phillips is president of Custom Development Solutions, Inc. (CDS). CDS is among the most sought after fundraising consulting firms specializing in the strategic planning and tactical execution of capital campaigns for non-profits throughout the United States and Canada. If you have a fundraising question, please call CDS at 800-761-3833 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.